Appetite And Salvation: Legalism or Not?

Linking diet to salvation is controversial. For some, it is an affront to the gospel. For others, it is an extension of grace. In publications like the Review, authors have made a point stressing the importance of belief over appetite restraint in regards to Christian living.

Popular slogans have been offered of promote a “believe, but not obey the health message” gospel. One example from a published minister reads: “The entire process of salvation has never, and will never be, a matter of eating or drinking (Rom. 14:17).”[1]  Another comes from the medical leadership of Adventist Health Ministries reading: “There is no salvation by works of any kind: no salvation by Sabbath; by diet; by exercise; or even by CELEBRATIONS, CREATION, NEWSTART, or whatever acronym used to describe health principles.[2]” To be fair, neither of these sources are suggesting that a proper diet is not a good idea or important to overall health; they are denouncing the idea that what one puts in their mouth has anything to do with one’s eternal destiny. While these statements may feel good and affirm what many believe to be true, the question is: Do they square with the evidence from the Bible?

The Garden of Eden

In the beginning, at Eden, it is hard to separate the issue of diet and salvation. After Adam and Eve’s failure with appetite, the plan of salvation was initiated. Remember, mankind was not tempted over immorality, murder, or theft, but food and trust. For God said, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die,” (Genesis 2:16–17 NKJV). Sadly, our first parents transgression over food caused a great divide between God and mankind. So serious was this rift that it required the death of the Son of Man to repair it. If this were the only case in the Word of God to illustrate the dangerous nature of appetite and man’s destiny, it should suffice, but the Bible does not stop here.

The Flood

The next major disaster to befall mankind in Genesis was the flood and this too is related to appetite. It is written, “For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark,” (Matthew 24:38 NKJV). However, this statement is not merely concerned with the flood, but alludes to  the end times. Jesus forewarned that just as mankind was given up to unrestrained appetite and unprincipled marriage before the destruction of the world by water, so will it be before the destruction of the world by fire. Appetite is an eschatological problem just as it was an antediluvian one. 

Diminishing Vitality

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Today the world is suffering greatly under the curse of dissolute eating. As we near the end of time, the results of this vice are staggering. A 2005 New England Journal of Medicine article suggested that the increasing rates of obesity in the United States threatens to diminish all the life expectancy gains touted by medicine.[3] In short, the up and coming generation of Americans will not live as long as their parents or grandparents.

Unfortunately, this is not just an American phenomenon. In 2008, the Royal Society published a brief article that attempts to devise a strategy of attack against “globesity.”[4] The article points out that the majority of people in the world die from diseases of lifestyle and diet rather than infections and pandemics. The authors also warned that the problem of “globesity” may “undo much of the progress seen in reducing the incidence of myocardial infarctions, strokes and some cancers.” While one may be hesitant to call this a fulfillment of prophecy, it should certainly be a mission call, especially for those who have been given a message of health reform.

Unrestrained Appetite

As the global flood was judgment upon a world given over to appetite and immorality, so too was the exclusion of Esau from his birthright. Esau’s trading of his spiritual birthright for food demonstrates how one can be blinded by their rudimentary desires they willing part with things of inestimable value. For this reason, Paul strictly warns believers not behave like Esau who exchanged the promises of God for the fleeting enjoyment of food (Hebrews 12:16). This warning is prefaced by an appeal to holiness, where he says “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14 KJV).

One of my colleagues—a surgeon—informed me of a patient he had who was suffering from an infection deep inside his shoulder joint. These infections are rare, usually one has to have had a previous surgery and/or a compromised immune system. As it turned out, this patient was an uncontrolled type 2 diabetic. When my colleague approached his patient post operation, he found the man sitting in bed, chewing on a cheeseburger, and sucking down a milk shake. Annoyed, the surgeon asked the patient why he was eating such food after his surgery. The patient shrugged and said it was because “he likes that food.” The surgeon then explained that if this patient kept his current course, the surgeon would have to see him again to remove his foot. The man shrugged again and said he would not stop eating that way because eating such foods “made him happy.”

How could a man who trades his foot for fast food be considered anything less than delusional? Clearly, his “god is his belly” and not the Lord of all creation. At a minimum, to sacrifice one’s limb for cheeseburgers is a horrendous trade. Morally, it is a violation of the first and second commandment. Strangely, church brethren make similar trades, but argue that by grace they are saved. While it is true that we are all saved by grace, it is also true that we can all be lost by making appetite our idol.  

It was not Esau alone who forfeited his inheritance over the joy of food, it was also his brother’s children. Jude succinctly describes the outcome of those who refused to believe and obey God: “But I want to remind you, though you once knew this, that the Lord, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 5 NKJV).

The Grave of Craving

The Bible is clear, believing for these former slaves was not some mystical affirmation of a sanctimonious platitude, but a trust in God signified by obedience. Regarding appetite, they were to rely upon God for their sustenance and not complain. However, we find the multitude rebelliously murmured against God and the manna He provided (Numbers 11:6). Instead of being satisfied with the food of angels (Psalm 78:25), they craved the flesh pots of Egypt and the accompanying slavery from which God had miraculously delivered them (Numbers 11:4–6,18–20). Amazingly, God gave these people the desires of their hearts, providing them a feast of quail, followed by the accompanying penalty.

The daily manna was to teach His people temperance and self-control. No matter how much they tried, they could only gather according to their need and not to their wants (Exodus 16:17–18). Except on Friday—in preparation for the Sabbath—the people would gather a double portion of manna—roughly two omers because they were allotted an omer for each day (16:22–23). In contrast, when the people gathered quail in the book of Numbers, we are told “he who gathered least gathered ten homers” (Numbers 11:32 NKJV). This shows the ravenous nature of the people in regard to meat. If one omer of manna was to sustain a person for a day, what was one going to do with ten omers of quail? Notably, the place where many were struck dead as a result of this indulgent consumption is called Kibroth Hattaavah or “Grave of Craving.”

Highlighting God’s signal displeasure, the Bible says that “while the meat was between their teeth, before it was chewed, the wrath of God was aroused against the people and Lord struck the people with a very great plague” (Numbers 11:33 NKJV). Taking nothing away from this text or the notion that God initiated the plague which the people endured, it is noteworthy that quail is known for its toxicity when taken in large amounts.[5] Quail, during Spring, consume hemlock herbs, which are harmless to the quail, but the effects of those herbs remain in their flesh and can be deadly to the humans who consume large amounts. Humans who receive hemlock poisoning via quail suffer a terrible muscle-destroying disease called rhabdomyolysis. This disease destroys striated muscle throughout the body, often causing pain, kidney failure, and electrolyte imbalances which can lead to heart arrhythmias and death. While not everyone died who voraciously consumed quail that day in the wilderness, most felt the harmful effects of such feasting.

Perhaps, this seems to be an unjust sentence upon people who desired meat. Yet, these same ones slighted Moses finding fault with God  since they were not supplied with the tasty flesh they enjoyed as slaves. They preferred slavery over freedom because the price of freedom, among other things, required an abstemious diet. Such people failed to enter the promised land and, most likely, many lost out on their eternal inheritance as well.  

Diet is not just about rebellion or mistrust, but it is also about holiness. The dietary mandate given by God to His people was couched in the context of holiness: “For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45 ESV). While it is clear such dietary mandates did much to maintain the health of the nation and prevent disease, one does not find such reasoning in Leviticus 11. Instead, the dietary commands instruct God’s people to eat in such a manner as consecrated men and women who worship the Lord (Leviticus 11:44). Today, equating holiness to what one may stick in his mouth is considered an anachronistic cliché of legalism. Yet, there is no apology for Leviticus 11 in the Old or New Testament.

Their God is Their Belly

Although Jesus does castigate the pretentious religious leaders of His day who violated the commandments of God while applauding themselves upon their strictures to ritual purity (Mark 7:1–13), He did not reject the notion that eating and drinking are important in the sight of God.  What Jesus emphasized among Jews—who fasted twice a week, who were meticulous about washing, how their food was prepared, where they bought it, and its quality—was that such practices could never make one clean because it never addressed the dark corruption from within (Mark 7:14–23). In other words, eat as healthy and as clean as you want, but if you do not confront the wickedness of the human heart you will remain unclean in the sight of God.

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This is why we are not saved by vegetarianism, veganism, or Loma Linda veggie link-isms. We desperately need the cleansing blood of Jesus to purify us from every bit of unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Yet, such grace and mercy does not give us license to indulge the unsanctified appetite. Paul warns that such men who make god “their belly” are enemies of the “cross of Christ,” and their “end is destruction” (Philippians 3:18–19 KJV).

Consequences

Similarly, when instructing Titus, Paul admonished him to rebuke the Cretans sharply because they were known as liars, ill tempered, and “lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12 ESV). It is not popular to rebuke anyone “sharply” over the sin of gluttony, particularly when it’s so popular in our own ranks, but maybe this is why it is needed now more than ever. There are plenty more examples to be cited from Scripture to make this case. Suffice to say, if we are to love the Lord “with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” (Mark 12:30) would that not include the food we consume?

Christians should not feel comforted when by eating and drinking they knowingly damage their God given faculties. Neither should fellow believers be harshly treated for not having enough greens on their plate. There is a balance, but as it stands now the scale is tilted toward an unhealthy direction and is being justified by grace.

At the end of the day no one will be saved by the food they eat. However, if one makes “god his belly” and shuts out the light of heaven to serve appetite, then they will find that the God of creation is not their God and heaven is not their home.

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Timothy Perenich lives in Clearwater Florida with his wife and children. 


[1] Limoni Manu, “Nonvegetarians Will Not Enter Heaven?” Adventist Review (August 25, 2005), http://archives.adventistreview.org/2005-1538/story2.html.

[2] Peter N. Landless and Zeno L. Charles-Marcel, “Are We Saved by Health?” Adventist Review (April 30, 2017), https://www.adventistreview.org/1705-55

[3] S. Jay Olshansky, et. al. “A Potential Decline in Life Expectancy in the United States in the 21st Century,” New England Journal of Medicine 352, no. 11 (March 17, 2005): 1138-1145.

[4] Eric P. Heymann and David Goldsmith, “Best Approaches in the Battle Against Globesity? Learning Lessons from our Experience Tackling HIV-AIDS and Tobacco Smoking,” Journal of the Royal Society Short Reports 3, no. 45 (2012): DOI 10.1258/shorts.2012.011159

[5] Eberhard Ritz, “Disease of the Month: Rhabdomyolysis,” Journal of the American Society of Nephrology 11 (2000): 1553-1561